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Turning Point: The new documentary “Coup 53”

A historical turning point is a moment, perhaps small, perhaps larger, that becomes uniquely causative of events that follow. Obvious examples might include the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand that set off World War One, the U.S. Supreme Court handing the election to George W. Bush instead of Al Gore, or 9-11.

The enthralling new documentary directed by Iranian film maker Taghi Amirani and edited and co-written by the renowned film editor Walter Murch (“Apocalypse Now”; “English Patient”) is a meticulous backward look at an event that still determines much of the resentment Iran feels toward the government of the United States—and Britain: the 1953 coup which overthrew Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader of Iran.

At least the U.S. has admitted its complicity; the British intelligence service, MI6, never has, and thereby arises the thriller aspect of this astonishing film. Combing through reams of old documents, film archives, audio- and videotapes, Amirani and Murch come upon a shocking find that explodes a long and careful cover-up.

Meanwhile, multiple interviews with Iranians and Brits who were present at the time of the coup, some of whom are so old that they have died since the film was finished, illuminate the context and the actual tragic events as they unfolded.

We begin to know Mossadegh himself, a dignified, intellectual, and incorruptible official whose laudable goal was to transform Iran into a modern secular state. For him, that required that Iran nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which had for decades been screwing Iran out of its fair share of oil profits.

Suddenly Mossadegh beat out Eisenhower or Churchill for the choice of Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, not as a hero of reformist government but as a sower of chaos. The U.S. and British powers that be, via their intelligence services, provided the cash—amazingly, it did not take all that much—to buy off Iranian journalists and hire mercenary provocateurs who took to the streets and inspired mobs to rise up against Mossadegh.

We know the rest of the story—or we certainly ought to. The Shah of Iran was installed, with the US. training his notorious secret police, SAVAK, in rituals of torture and surveillance. Eventually there was the inevitable reaction, and the Shah had to go into exile, leaving the ayatollahs to take over, which led to the 1979 taking of 52 American hostages as well as deep Iranian-American mutual resentment and suspicion that has lasted to this day. And the hostage-taking was surely a crucial factor in Reagan’s defeat of Carter.

The American secret establishment drew precisely the wrong lesson from the “success” of the overthrow of Mossadegh, and from thence came a rolling series of perversities such as the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, leader of the Congolese independence movement, the overthrow of Arbenz, another democratically elected leader in Guatemala, the attempt to overthrow Ho Chih Minh in Vietnam, and the Bay of Pigs debacle.

Of course it is impossible to say exactly what might have happened if Mossadegh had been allowed to stay in power, but one possibility, crushingly unrealized today, is that there would be one more modern, thriving democracy in the middle of the Middle East.

One thing is certain: given the low state of American-Iranian relations at the moment, this film, riveting on its own merits, now carries the weight of a profoundly greater relevance than the filmmakers could have possibly expected when they began the project more than a decade ago.

The film – which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 2019 – has received audience awards from the Vancouver International Film Festival and has been nominated for the Grierson and BIFA awards. It will be theatrically distributed later in 2020. The trailer is available on YouTube.

Perhaps “Coup 53” itself will become a turning point—toward a warmer relationship between the “West” and Iran.